65 years later: The 1955 Tornado
Editor's Note: This month marks the 65th anniversary of perhaps the most horrifying event in Blackwell's history, the EF-5 tornado of 1955. In today's issue, we're looking back on the events of May 25, 1955: what happened, how people reacted to the disaster, and how our community pulled through. We hope you will enjoy our look back on this infamous day.
Blackwell, Oklahoma was like a skyscraper in the path of a massive wrecking ball on May 25, 1955. An EF-5 tornado decimated a major portion of the city. Following along the eastern side of Blackwell and eventually ending up in Udall, Kansas, the tornado wiped out homes, buildings, and businesses, claiming nearly two dozen lives and leaving hundreds injured.
The tornado formed in Noble County. At approximately 9:00 p.m that night, a frigid cool-front intertwined with a sweltering warm-front, forming the vortex of circulation known as a tornado. As it moved along its path, the twister gained momentum. It hit an already weather-beaten Blackwell at approximately 9:25 p.m.
The damage was unparalleled.
The tornado wiped out 29 city blocks in Blackwell. The area between Lincoln Ave. and Doolin Ave. west of B St. was hit the hardest.
A dramatic description of the event appeared on the front page of the Blackwell Journal-Tribune the day after:
“The houses are in splinters,” the article read. “Only a few stone and brick houses were spared. Almost all of the homes in the direct path of the tornado are completely destroyed. Great trees as much as three and four feet in diameter were uprooted and twisted. Streets in the area were lined with trees and they were ripped to stumps. The funnel, estimated at about a mile wide, hit south of Blackwell and then came back down in the city and churned to the north, jumped the Chikaskia River, and hit farm buildings north of the city.”
In the days following the tornado, the newspaper mobilized its reporters to conduct a survey of the damage. The extensive report appeared in the paper's next Sunday edition, taking up most of the front page and nearly all of the second. Surveyors said that 85 structures were “damaged but occupied,” 70 were “extensively damaged” but remained “repairable,” and 190 were “completely destroyed.”
Broken water lines left homes without drinking water. But at the same time, few sources of water were readily available: consumption of river water, city leaders warned, could cause typhoid fever. Residents were encouraged to get vaccinations against the ailment.
Other types of infrastructure – phone systems, electrical systems, and natural gas lines – were also damaged.
To add insult to injury, two of Blackwell's main employers were reduced to rubble. The Hazel-Atlas Glass Factory was demolished, and it would never again reopen. That cost the city nearly 200 jobs. The Acme Foundry, too, was destroyed, though it would eventually rebuild.
In total, the estimated cost of the damage was $12.5 million.
This damage, however, was material.
The May 25 tornado killed and injured hundreds of people across the region.
In Blackwell, the twister claimed the lives of James Ellington, Mrs. Hugh Embry, Jessie Bird, R.L. Riley, Sherry Riley, Dr. D.A. Kling, Terry Ray Denton, Charles Benson, Ed Hartman, Mrs. Eugene Stiles, Mrs. Wiley Burris, Alex Butler, Clarence Overholt, Mae McGrew, Mrs. Annie Ballinger, J.E. Bartels, and Mrs. Clay Stewart. Some say the death toll later rose to 21.
Around 200 more people were injured.
After the storm passed, trucks from the Blackwell Fire Department raced to the east side of town as soon as a man reported to firefighters that the glass factory was fully engulfed in flames. But despite firefighters' best efforts, they were, as one news reporter described, “helpless.”
The city's water distribution system was wrecked, and there was no water pressure on the east side of town. And to make matters worse, the Chikaskia River was flooding. Nevertheless, the fire was eventually extinguished.
Immediately after the tornado dissipated, city employees started to get public utilities up and going again. By the end of the week, the city's phone, electrical, and gas systems were back online.
City officials put out requests for aid, and they got it. In the following days, National Guard crews came with dump trucks to help clean up debris. Martial law was declared, and fire and police departments from across the area descended upon the storm-wrecked town. Aid packages for local businesses were offered, and organizations like the Red Cross provided shelter to those displaced by the twister.
One by one, homes were rebuilt. For at least 29 city blocks, a new Blackwell was born.
In the years since the storm, Blackwell has had severe weather incidents. However, the city has been better prepared to handle them. Advanced weather technology makes predicting storms easier, and the city now has an entire department devoted solely to keeping the city afloat during severe weather. Firefighters and police officers alike take rigorous training on how to handle mass crises, and citizens are able to find the latest weather news at the touch of a button with real-time radar imagery.
Dayle McGaha, the Journal-Tribune's longtime publisher, noted these advances in a 1989 column. His message: One can never be too prepared
“Blackwell has come a long way. … Our people are strong and persistent when it comes to rebounding from tragedy,” he wrote. “Let's continue to be alert, cautious, and have definite plans on what to do if ever such a tragedy hits again. Thank God for many protective measures and capable, alert, weather-watching volunteers who have our best interests at heart.”
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